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Monday 4 April 2011

History of Aesthetics (2) Baltasar Gracián y Morales

Balthasar Gracián (1601 – 1658) was a Spanish Jesuit Priest and Moralistic Writer whose influencial work Oráculo manual y arte de prudenica (1637) was translated into many other languages, most famously into German by Schopenhauer, and became an important starting point for many of the discussions upon the nature of aesthetics in the 18th century. It was in The Oracle (alternatively The Art of Worldly Wisdom) that the first conceptual description of taste (it is believed, e.g. Kivy in ‘The Seventh Sense’) was first set out.  However, the style of the book is somewhat ‘labyrinthine’ in that it tends to ‘orbit’ a point without directly making it. This makes his writing rather easy to take as flippant or else as a misanthropic pithy saying without any deeper or more rigourous grounds to them, but, much like one of his later admirers Nietzsche, to take him at this surface level is to do a disservice to his work.
The Oracle is undoubtedly meant as a moral guide to life, much like the earlier stoic work Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, but within its pages is also a delicate aesthetic theory, one that will reoccur with the development of the ‘man of fine taste’ in post-Baumgarten European Aesthetics. Good taste in the Oracle is not merely a concept related to our critical or aesthetic behaviour but is a constituant part of what we are; it represents the faculty of liking or disliking in a wide range of situations and towards a variety of objects and so forth, and thus it represents the first attempted construction of taste as a mental faculty. A further insight that Gracián elaborates is that this taste is not an innate function of mankind, but that it is must be honed through the correct education. We might say, therefore, that although we all have the capability for exhibiting good taste in our lives it is only those who make the correct efforts and with the appropriate dedication that may be called a ‘person of good taste’ or in Gracián’s words “a saint.” I believe he means this (in the final aphorism) to be taken as a near impossiblity, rather than sainthood being something that most could achieve, the total achievement of Virtue is a task that is almost endless. However, no less worthy for that, that it is rather a life’s work and when do we know when it is complete? Well, like the saint it is only once dead and another can pass judgment upon our life. For saints are only sainted postmortum, which may be seen as a final misanthropic witticism of Graciáns, but I prefer to see this as a humourous aside to those that feel they could not get any better. Your life is never complete, Gracián is saying, it is a constant education to better one’s self and follow the path of Virtue and Virtue is synonymous with good taste in this reading. [Note: Although, under some readings 'saint' = Christian, as Gracián was a Jesuit priest, I'm using the 'saint' = canonized model.]
Following is a small selection from the Oracle of various fragments of aphorisms that deal with taste, either directly or indirectly, and are divided into the; original Spanish, Walton’s translation, and my interpretation.
Un bel portarse es la gala del vivir: desempeña singularmente todo buen término.
A gracious deportment is the adornment of life: it provides the best way to the attainment of every worthy end.
If you behave well then your life will go more smoothly towards the Virtuous.
Es munción de discretos la cortesana gustosa erudición.
The armoury of the discreet is polite, tasteful learning.
I take the emphasis on learning here to be the vital point.This is what the ‘discreet’ have as their advantage over all others.
En nada vulgar. No en el gusto.
Be vulgar in nothing. In the first place, not in your taste.
The importance of taste, that is, its preeminance above all other ‘qualities’. The vulgar is in opposition to what is Virtuous.
Estar en opinión de dar gusto.
Cultivate a repution for being pleasant.
I would see taste (gusto) here as being worthy of cultivation in that your dealings with other people will be all the better for its development, as he goes on to say “those who behave in a friendly way make friends.” Thus, those who are ‘tasteful’ will further develop their taste.
Tenga, pues, libertad de genio, apasionado de lo selecto y nunca peque contra la fe de su buen gusto.
Maintain, then, freedom of spirit, be zealous in pursuit of what is choice, and never sin against the verdict of your good taste.
Do not presume too much, extremes are to be avoided, taste deals with wise moderation.
Es eminencia de un buen gusto gozar de casa cosa en su complemento: no todos pueden, ni los que pueden saben.
It is high privilege of good taste to enjoy everything in its perfect state: not every one is capable of doing this, and not all those who have the ability know how to do so.
It is not just a natural endowment, taste must be ‘cultivated’ that is it must be educated in the appropriate manner.
Son las exageraciones prodigalidades de la estimación, y dan indico de la cortedad del conocimiento y del gusto.
Exaggerations are excesses of the judgment and indicate limited knowledge and taste.
Exaggeration is “an offshot of lying” and is damaging to your own [reputation for] wisdom. The wise prefer understatement to overstatement. Although it should be pointed out that Gracián himself is normally to be found overstating the case...
Lo más se vive de ella: supone el buen gusto y el rectísimo dictamen; que no bastan el estudio ni el igenio.
Most things in life depend upon right choice: it implies good taste and the most accurate judgment, for study and intelligence are not enough.
An argument for free will is also within the pages of Gracián’s Oracle. Also, it is not by study alone that a man might exhibit taste, i.e. one cannot just read books (like Gracián’s) one has to be about to put this knowledge to use and know how to act correctly through practical and not just theorectical application.
Gusto relevante. Cabe cultura en él, así como en el ingenio; realza la excelencia del entender el apetito del desear, y depués la fruición del poseer. Conócese la altura de un caudal por las elevación del afecto.
Good taste. There is room for cultivation here, just as in the case of the mind; the excellence of the understanding enhances the appetite of desire, and, later on, the enjoyment of possession. The extent of a man’s capacity is to be known by the loftiness of his taste.
The “loftiness of taste” is, again, not a ‘limit’ that we are born with, but one that may be extended by our cultivation.
If there are any Spanish speakers who could offer a different translation to Walton’s and help out with any cultural nuances that seem to have snuck past me then I’d be truly grateful.